The Buzz: The Disappointing Issues of Race in Free State of Jones


This week saw many wide release films of various quality. The most interesting, although not the best (Surprisingly the best of the wide releases for the week is the Blake Lively shark thriller The Shallows) is the hugely ambitious and problematic, Free State of Jones. See how its conversation on race is both reductive yet important. With the new Steven Spielberg film, BFG, being released today, we look at his film about Abraham Lincoln and how he balanced an exciting character study with an American civics lesson. We will also look forward to one of the premiere female directors making her first American film about the American youth milieu starring Shia Labeouf. Also see which CEO is getting sued and who is going to star in the new miniseries by the Academy Award winning writer of 12 Years a Slave. 

Film: Free State of Jones: In the past few months, hate and racial bigotry has been especially palpable through political and media rhetoric. It is only natural for a filmmaker to look to the past in order to explain the present. Free State of Jones is an admirable, unwieldy and problematic effort trying to explore early systemic racism after the American Civil War. This is racism that will continue to have aftershock to the present day.

Matthew McConaughey plays the bearded white savior, Newton Knight of Jones County, Mississippi. Gary Ross, the writer-director, reveres Knight, creating a virtuous messianic figure of the Confederate Army turned good. Knight was a renegade, Union supporter, deserting the Confederate army in this film not only because of a new policy that would allow southerners who own more than twenty slaves to avoid serving the army but because his young nephew is killed during the war (Ross obviously thought bureaucratic nonsense would not be an appealing enough hook thus he added the cathartic death of a family member).   

Knight returns home to the swampy farmlands of Jones County, reuniting with his wife (Keri Russel) and son. But, deserting the army makes Knight a fugitive and soon he leaves his family behind to go become a runaway. Finding solace with a group of runaway slave in marsh (Get it? He is no different from slaves running away from their masters), Knight starts fighting for the downtrodden, protecting slaves and poor white farm owners from the Confederates’ unfair taxation. Knight’s high-mindedness resonates with the people of Jones County, thus creating a militia fighting the Confederates from within.

Ross, with his 139-minute running time, is trying to create an epic film. The film is heavily segmented into sections by settings like a mini-series but is not compelling enough to warrant it. Ideas and concepts are placed at the highest importance by Ross. That makes Knight into more of a vehicle to spout high-mindedness than as fully fledge action hero. But, McConaughey plays Knight as an action hero, a combination of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace and any laidback, cool McConaughey cliché you can think of.

Gary Ross, a three-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, with all his high mindedness cannot avoid falling into the traps of clichés of this genre. Mahershala Ali plays Moses, a runaway slave, but it is Knight who serves as his guide out of oppression. Knight literally frees Moses out of his chains (or in this case a metal neck cuff) and teaches them how to be self-dependent. Another slave, Rachel, (Gugu Mbataha-Raw) becomes a love interest for Knight, yet Ross leaves out the fact that she was a descendent of slaves owned by Knight’s grandfather.

But, the film tackles the hard concept of Reconstruction and the monumental fumble that it was that would send ripple effects in race relations for years to come. Very few films get a chance to do so. But, it is hard to explore the complexity of Reconstruction and deep-rooted racism and this film does not get it done. Often still photographs of real life events interrupts the film’s flow to give the audience important information like a Ken Burns documentary. It avoids filmmaking for straight teaching in the blandest way possible.

It’s tough because aspects about this film are so important for the national conversation of the present. About 45-minutes into the film, the film abruptly shifts to the 1940’s to a trial in which is a descendent of Knight and Rachel is being brought to trial for marrying a white woman. Because he is considered 1/8 African American, he was legally considered a colored person which goes against Mississippi’s miscegeny laws at the time. This is a radical step by the film to give more substance to the issue of race but that trial is put on the backburner coming up intermittently for two-minutes at a time to reassert itself into the minds of the audiences. A braver and better filmmaker than Ross would use that connection to create a statement in cause and effect in racialized America rather than as a haphazard tonal change.

This type of narrative is hard to wrestle because it requires a lot of nuance. Free State of Jones has blockbuster ambitions but it cannot have the cake and eat it too. It’s really disappointing because a better version of this film is what America needs right now.

Rewind: Lincoln: Talking about films that treats issues with nuance, the last great Steven Spielberg film Lincoln is the perfect example of smartly tackling issues of slavery while being a film about political diplomacy. Written by playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln is a smart narrative that reorients our knowledge on how Thirteenth Amendment was passed thus abolishing slavery. Most times during history class this issue of abolishing slavery is discussed but the long arduous process in passing the Amendment is barely mentioned. This film is a compelling character study of a great American president and an important lesson in civics discussing processes that most films won’t dare touch.

Coming Soon: American Honey: One of the best female director’s working today is Andrea Arnold. Fish Tank is a British independent classic and I consider her impressionistic version of Wuthering Heights as the best adaptation of the novel. The first American feature for the British native recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to mixed responses from people saying it is a classic to those who dismiss it. That divisiveness is usually a good sign for an interesting film. American Honey seems to be a sprawling epic of 162-minutes about Midwestern young adulthood. The film stars Shia LaBeouf and is set to be released on September, 30th.

In The Loop: An online petition has recently been started to petition for the first ever openly gay Star Wars character. This petition was set up in honor of Drew Leinonen who was one of the victims of the Orlando shooting. Joshua Yehl, who began the petition, was a friend of Leinonen and knew of his passion for the film franchise.

The CEO of DreamWorks animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, is being sued. The Ann Arbor City Employees Retirement System, who hold stock in the company, has filed suit against the head of Dreamworks animation for reaching an agreement with Comcast that would also give Katzenberg 7% in perpetuity as he becomes head of a new subsidiary called DreamWorks New Media. This goes against his fiduciary obligations to the shareholders.

Academy Award Winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley just got two high profile names to join his new Showtime miniseries, Guerilla. Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire and Idris Elba of Luther and Pacific Rim has signed on to join this six-episode drama about a couple who goes into a life of activism and radical militancy. Ridley, along with writing, will also serve as the show’s director and producer.

The Game of Thrones series finale reaches a series high drawing in 8.9 million viewers last Sunday. Good luck to all those people who now have to fill the hole in their lives on Sundays.